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What Makes Texas Texas? A Memorial Day Meditation

“I would love it,” ChristmasBeard wrote in the very first comment on “Calling All Texans,” the post this past weekend in which I asked what makes Texas Texas, “if we could get Joshua Trevino to weigh in on this.”  

That struck me as a darned good idea, so I dropped Josh a line.  (If you’re unfamiliar with him, you won’t be for long:  Vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation–the outfit, as it happens, that’s sponsoring my visit to Texas to interview Gov. Perry next month–Josh is a rising conservative star.)

“Texas is properly understood,” Josh replied, “as an expression and achievement of the American spirit.”

Below, Josh’s answer in full.  A meditation on the nature of the Lone Star State–of these United States.

“Sir,

“I’ll begin my answer with a passage from T.R. Fehrenbach’s 1968 Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, pages 256-257:

“‘…. Significantly, Hispanic and European observers have continually called the true Texan — the descendant and inheritor of the frontier experience — the most ‘European,’ or territorial, of Americans. The Texan’s attitudes, his inherent chauvinism and the seeds of his belligerence, sprouted from his conscious effort to take and hold his land. It was the reaction of essentially civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions, beset by enemies they despised. The closest 20th-century counterpart is the State of Israel, born in blood in another primordial land.’

313502_f1024.jpg“This is right, and explains much about the undeniable uniqueness of the Texan character. As Steinbeck observed, ‘Texas is a nation in every sense of the word …. A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.’ That was true in 1836, and remains so in 2012. I remember well returning to the Rio Grande borderlands in 2009, visiting the towns and byways of my ancestors, and returning with sorrow to California [where Josh then worked], feeling exactly as if I were heading back into exile.

“But this does not, I think, answer your question, which seeks to understand why Texas stands out as a beacon of prosperity and good governance almost alone in modern America. Texas and Texans, after all, were unique from the start, with a national creation narrative matched only by the Mormons and the United States itself. Yet modern Texas — demographically multicultural, economically diversified, and attractive to roughly one thousand American migrants per day for the past several years — is something new in American history. We’ve been a big state forever. To my mind, we’ve been the best state forever. But our objective dominance in jobs and prosperity — to the point that we match and even beat California, which God has amply blessed with advantages we lack — is recent, and the explanation is not simply the unique Texan character.

“The explanation is the unique American character. Texas, for all its glory and independent heritage, is properly understood as an expression and achievement of the American spirit.”When Colonel William Barret Travis wrote his famous letter from the doomed Alamo on February 24th, 1836, he did not address it to the provisional government of the Republic of Texas, nor even to Texans alone. ‘To the People of Texas,’ he wrote, ‘& all Americans in the world …. I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & every thing dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch.’ Just a few days later, the embattled patriots of Texas declared their independence, listing among their grievances this key point:

 ”‘The Mexican government, by its colonization laws, invited and induced the Anglo-American population of Texas to colonize its wilderness under the pledged faith of a written constitution, that they should continue to enjoy that constitutional liberty and republican government to which they had been habituated in the land of their birth, the United States of America. In this expectation they have been cruelly disappointed ….’

images-1.jpg“Texas, from the start, has been an explicitly American project, morally indistinguishable from the project of the American Founders, and impossible without the light of their example. This is where I dissent from the great Fehrenbach: the closest 20th-century counterpart to Texas isn’t the State of Israel, flattering though the comparison is. The spirit of Texas is the spirit of America — the America that won the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War, rallying to the cause of liberty whatever the cost.

“When you, a Californian — or an Illinoisan, or a New Yorker, or a Michigander — look at Texas and wonder at how we achieved prosperity with comparatively little governance, you are merely repeating the question that emigrants from Europe and around the world used to ask themselves about the United States of America. Yes, we are great to ourselves because we are proudly, uniquely, inescapably Texan: but we are great to you because of the American Dream.

“It’s still here. It’s alive. This is still a place where a man can make himself, forge his destiny, and succeed or fail according to his efforts and the mercy of his God. This is still a place where a young boy growing up in a tiny hamlet called Paint Creek, in a home with no indoor plumbing and a washtub on the porch, can become the most consequential Governor in half a century. This is still a place where a refugee from Communist Vietnam can put down roots and see his business flourish. This is still a place where a wildcatter will take a chance on an unproven patch — and strike it rich.

images-1.jpg“There is a profound sadness in knowing that this, the classic American Dream, now strikes so many Americans as alien, and makes them wonder what makes Texas ‘different.’ The reality is that their states, not ours, are different: different from what America has been, ought to be, and can still be. Though we Texans revel in the admiration of the right-thinking men and women of the other 49 states, we also yearn for the day when that American Dream belongs to all of America …. again.

“America made Texas great. If Texas can help make America great once more, it will be a debt repaid.

“Resp.,

“Josh”

  1. Mel Foil

    I imagine, if you grow up in South Texas, or East Texas, or North Texas, or up in the Panhandle, the rest of Texas, just by itself, looks like a patchwork of states. That makes the other 49 US states seem practically like foreign countries. Not only don’t you want a centralized US government; you’re suspicious of having a centralized Texas government. Can’t be too careful.

  2. Troy Senik, Ed.

    As good of a political and policy analyst as he is (and Josh is very good), I’m now convinced that he’s missed his calling. He needs to be the poet laureate of the Great State of Texas.

  3. The King Prawn

    I would disagree, though only slightly. The spirit he speaks of cannot properly be claimed by any singular nation or state. I think it more universal to anyone bathed in Western philosophy. America exemplified it for a time, but now such a spirit finds safe harbor almost exclusively in Texas. I pray it will be fortified there and spread out across the nation again.

  4. Noesis Noeseos

    Although not a Texan, I have always been impressed with their sense of independence.  Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Texas actually was an independent republic for nine years.  Would any Texan like to say something about that period of time, about how the Texas government conducted both its domestic and foreign affairs?

  5. Severely Ltd.

    Wow! That’s beautifully written. With this caliber of writer and thinker in government, there’s real hope for this country, and I don’t mean the campaign-promise, empty-rhetoric variety.

  6. Limestone Cowboy

    Just a side note… I’ve traveled to many states.  In most of them, the state flag flies mainly over government buildings.

    Here in Texas, it flies everywhere.. car dealerships, subdivision, parks, downtown streets. Also, I note that when I meet Americans overseas, most when asked where they’re from will say “from the States”.  But most Texans I’ve met say “I’m from Texas”.

    I don’t fully understand why, but there’s a sense of Texas as a nation as well as a state.

  7. James Lileks
    C

    1. You can tell a lot about a person by their attitude towards Texas. The automatic sneer, the eye-rolling – you’re probably dealing with someone who believes that Real America exists from 116th street down to Soho.

    2. Wasn’t “Don’t Mess with Texas” a bumpersticker motto aimed at reducing littering? It seems like too grand a line to be yoked to a public service campaign. The sentiments, of course, predate the appropriation. 

    Great piece, Josh; everyone should follow him on Twitter as well.

  8. HeartofAmerica

    All I know is that I come from a long line of Texans and I wouldn’t want to mess with any of them. Tough, stubborn, and all of them survivors. Proud to be a descendent.

  9. M.D. Wenzel

    I, like many others, will soon be escaping deep-blue Illinois and heading for Texas. All of this Teaxas love on Rico helps reassure me that I’ve made the right decision.

  10. Big John

    Yes, Mr. Lileks, “Don’t Mess With Texas” was a slogan coined in 1985 by the Austin ad agency, GSD&M, under contract to the Texas Department of Transportation.  The agency, rife with D’s (natch, it’s based in Austin after all) also put out a book about the campaign and some of the great TV ads it spawned (http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Mess-Texas-Behind-Legend/dp/0972282513).  

  11. raycon and lindacon

     Great folks in a great place.  Every time I’ve been in that state, lived there for almost a year, I’ve always felt at home.  Living in Colorado I get to see many Texans, as they love to vacation here.

    God lives in Texas, but He vacations in Colorado.

  12. CoolHand
    Patrick in Albuquerque: It is well written, but the notion that Texas is America is possibly something that should not be published on this day. · 3 hours ago

    What does this even mean?

    You can’t praise Texas on Memorial Day?

  13. John Marzan

    All Romney has to say is: “Look at what’s happening to California, and compare that to Texas…”

  14. Skyler

    Amen. .And I’ll add that if someone out there hasn’t read Fehrenbach’s “Comanche” and other books, they are missing out in life.

  15. Rick B

    I think some of the explanation is geographic isolation, we’ve had to depend on ourselves for so long.  Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia is about 140 miles, then another 95 miles or so to New York City.  That’s a good part of the east coast, which wouldn’t get you halfway across the state.  Help is far away, so we’ve always depended on ourselves, especially in the 100s of tiny towns dotting the plains, including my home town of Columbus (about 4000 souls).  The industrial revolution has eased this burden, but the spirit has been passed through family lore and tradition.  Most of us are proud to have made it on our own, like our forefathers truly did.  The (extremely) large metro areas have been great for industry and economy, a blessing for our state.  Deep in the Heart of Texas, it’s the quiet small town life where we help our brother and our neighbor of our own accord, like nobody else does.

    Also, chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy, corn cob on the side.  And barbecue.  No place else has it, despite the rumors…

  16. Muleskinner
    Duane Oyen: There is a lot to like about Texas.  I also have an ugly memory from 1977 of Texas bumper stickers that said about the other 49 states, in the middle of the oil shortage, “Let them freeze in the dark.”

    I think the entire sticker was “Drive 75, Freeze a Yankee,” and it was a protest against the national, Washington-imposed 55 mph speed limit. As such, I remember the sentiment being applauded in much of the Great Plains.

  17. Steven Potter

    Wow, what a well written response.  I’m inspired to visit and take it all in.

  18. RJCool

    It is rare that I had much to add but post reagans election in 1980 (which shocked me) I headed off to so Texas from the comfy confines of the dc suburbs where I had been raised. I ended up working in the oil field to my great delight however incongruous. In reference to the issue at hand. My first impression still holds – government is designed to satisfy the people. While Maybe trivial I was struck by a simple traffic condition. Back east if you miss a turn you are stuck. In Texas you are always given an option on an inside u turn not limited to govt. authorized vehicles. Wow I was as important as the govt.Another thing to consider is that the state legislature meets infrequently in order to limit their damage. When I was there the dems dominated and I thought that Texas was a one party state and that was one too many. There is often corruption and incompetence but don’t mess w Texas independence.

  19. Eeyore
    James Lileks: The automatic sneer, the eye-rolling – you’re probably dealing with someone who believes that Real America exists from 116th street down to Soho.

    The instant Josh Trevino hit “Send” on his note to Peter, someone walking between 116th and Soho, a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the US  tucked under the arm, was overcome by a powerful wave of dizziness – “I’m sure I ordered an organic soy latte – they didn’t give me dairy, I hope.”

  20. Duane Oyen

    There is a lot to like about Texas.  I also have an ugly memory from 1977 of Texas bumper stickers that said about the other 49 states, in the middle of the oil shortage, “Let them freeze in the dark.”

    Now, if there were no Dallas Cowboys to cheer against….